Traveling through his native country of India, Manish Gupta witnessed a fading trade. "I met many artisans who made beautiful products but couldn't even make a dollar a day," he says.
As a result, Gupta found that the younger generations in the villages he visited weren't interested in continuing the handicraft practice, and he feared that the art would disappear. "I realized I have a lot of opportunities and skills that I could use to help these people and this industry," says Gupta, 30, who previously worked for Dell. Inspired by his travels, he started Handmade Expressions in 2005, which sells products such as handbags, jewelry, stationery and table accessories that Gupta sources from cooperatives in India.
"We travel to rural India to understand the traditional art of the region then help the artisans make products that will appeal to an international market," he explains. "Regardless of how beautiful the art is, if it's not high quality, it won't sell in other parts of the world."
In addition to its six employees, the Austin, Texas-based company employs a team of five people based in India that meets with local cooperatives and works with artisans. Fostering one-on-one partnerships with the cooperatives is key, says Gupta, since communicating with the artists is one of the biggest challenges. "Some don't have phones or e-mail, so we need people to meet with them face to face."
Currently, Handmade Expressions works with 700 retail stores in the U.S., including Papyrus and Pottery Barn. "I believe every company would like to sell fair trade products but may not know where to find them," Gupta says. Handmade Expressions is the sourcing partner for these products, ensuring that the artisans are paid fairly and that environmental standards are met. Gupta has even worked with companies to create custom products made by the artisans he employs. All Handmade Expressions products come with tags explaining the significance of the art and the economic and social impact the business is making in artisan communities.
Gupta strongly believes that economic sustainability is the key to development. "Many issues will go away if people have the ability to earn a living," he says. "For example, right now, if someone doesn't have enough food to eat, they don't have the ability to concentrate on education." As a native of India who moved to the U.S. to study, Gupta is focusing on creating opportunities for others in his native country. He expects to earn sales of $900,000 to $1 million this year.JJ Ramberg is the host of MSNBC's small-business program Your Business and co-founder of GoodSearch.com.